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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Carl Neville

Carl Neville is a writer and author originally from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. His non-fiction works include No More Heroes? Steroids, Cocaine, Finance and Film in the 70s and Classless: Recent Essays on British Film, whilst his debut novel Resolution Way was published in May 2016 by Repeater Books. I caught up with Carl to talk about his books, Brexit, Corbyn, and representations of the working-class in the media.




Can you tell us about the inspiration for Resolution Way?


I suppose the inspiration for it was what looked like, around four or five years ago during the coalition, an acceleration of financialisaton. I was very struck by the coalition’s rhetoric and was horrified by developments like the vilification of the poorest in our society, which had admittedly been happening to a lesser extent before, but I never thought some of the ideas that were being expressed would be accepted in modern-day England.  I spent time thinking about what the national trajectory was as well as the net-based economy for the young and so on. That formed the basis of the dystopia. 


I could also see parts of London where I’d lived gentrifying and had friends that had been pushed out of Deptford and Lewisham. I was aware of many of the struggles around housing. Things dovetailed to give the idea that things in the future would look much worse than they are now but with many of the underlying features of the neoliberal city being kept. 


When I first thought about writing it I thought I’d do a kind of twin dystopian/utopian novella, but it ended up much longer than I thought it would be, partially because Alex Niven encouraged me to write a much lengthier book than I had planned. This was for the best as it forced to me to justify many of the elements of the story. The utopian half of the book was based around the idea of a non-neoliberal Britain that had moved onto something rather post-capitalist but would keep traces of prior working-class struggle and institutions. 


Even though I started writing it a number of years ago I knew it would be based around a doubling-down  on neoliberalism. So, I did think that things would get very grim until neoliberalism had been defeated twice and then we’d be able to return to some form of stabilisation. I thought in the long-term things would improve. Obviously, it took me several years to get to the utopian part of the novel. By the time I reached that point, Corbynism had arrived, the narrative on economics had shifted to a degree on the right and we have hopefully moved closer to the utopian part but at the same time things have worsened in certain areas. Nonetheless, there’s more positive stuff going on than there was ten years ago. 





You have repeatedly defended Corbyn on your blog – do you still stand behind him? 


Absolutely, I’m not sure why anyone who was initially enthused by the campaign would have subsequently dropped out. It depends whether you think this is about Corbyn himself or not. If you think we need to find a figure like Cameron or Blair then you’d be horrified by Corbyn, but if you think he represents a break in business as usual, you’ll see Labour under Corbyn as something that is challenging neoliberalism, fighting racism and trying to deepen grass roots engagement. Corbyn as a figure is not actually very relevant to me – the project is something that appeals to me. There doesn’t seem to be a good substitute for Corbyn appearing so it’s essential that the ideas continue to be pushed and that those getting behind him to force change are supported. 





What are your feelings on the direction of supposedly left-leaning media outlets like The Guardian? 


My interest in Corbyn and Momentum is unwavering essentially. I have actually just completed an MA dissertation on Corbyn’s representations in the Guardian and other media outlets. The Guardian seems to be fully behind the neoliberal project as far as I can tell. People like Jonathan Freeland and Polly Toynbee I find difficult to feel are on the left or are advocates of anything other than Blairite neoliberalism. What I find hard to understand is why they are so unenthusiastic about the Corbyn project. If Corbyn and the MPs that are supporting him were career politicians who were looking to enter finance or something after politics you could understand the hostility. 


Corbyn’s politics seem to be fairly uncontentious stuff like Keynesian economics and renationalisating the railways. The Financial Times actually published an article about John McDonnell where they described him as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”, which seems correct. What is he proposing that’s likely to terrify business and industry? Also, the Tories seem so likely to make such a hash of Brexit that there are many people in finance feeling really pissed off with the Government. It’s not inconceivable that the Labour party might be able to offer a less unhinged, more investment-led and generally appealing alternative even to leading business and finance figures. 


One of the methods the media have used is to represent Corbyn’s supporters as a hysteric cult. It seems like anything that challenges the belief in neoliberalism is characterised as a form of irrationality, with anybody who opposes their sort of hegemonic “rationality” being portrayed as a na├»ve dreamer, emotionally incontinent or someone who has fallen under some sort of magic spell, and it just goes on and on and on. This sort of cognitive dissonance means the idea of Corbyn’s supporters not being detached from reality is filtered out. Corbyn’s critics in Labour are so ideologically-wedded to their position they just keep repeating the same things. 


I have met many ordinary, well-organised, civil, intelligent people within Momentum from different generations and the idea that the movement is littered with obsessed groupies is just madness. I have met no Corbyn supporters that have been as rabid, embittered, misanthropic and angry as his detractors. A lot of people work in the NHS, immigration and social care and have genuine concrete concerns about the way things are going yet they’re being dismissed as idealistic idiotic hippies, largely by supposedly “left-wing” people. I think the reputation of publications like Guardian has never been lower. It’s hard to feel anything other than incredulous contempt. We’re talking about people who have done very nicely out of the last twenty years and really can’t understand why we can’t just embrace another Blair-esque figure again, which betrays a total inability to grasp the challenges people are facing almost ten years into a global financial crisis. 


In your book ‘Classless’, you said the British cinema of the previous two decades had been largely unrepresentative of British society and issues related to class and class struggle. Do you think things have improved or worsened since?


I don’t think things have worsened, I think British cinema has actually become a lot more interesting – in fact I think that’s the case for cinema itself over the last ten years. There are more things I’m interested in seeing these days whereas the 2000s involved many reheated, refried Britpop tropes with very little going on. However, I don’t think we have seen the emergence of any working-class directors with any real experience of working-class life. I think cinema has improved but not in terms of anything that addresses the working-class. 


Part of what Classless was about was me going to my local video and tape exchange and finding that certain things seemed to be particularly popular amongst young, skint, working-class lads. There were some quite interesting themes and patterns, such as Danny Dyer being a pop-sociological tutor to the unwashed masses. 


What were the most important films for you growing up? What has inspired you recently?


When I was a kid, I used to have a sort of tension with my dad who I always wanted to take me to the cinema but hated sci-fi and fantasy and would refuse to watch those films. He would instead insist that we watched more adult-orientated things like Network, The Hill and other weighty realist dramas. I remember watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard and other Billy Wilder stuff. There were many plays that were turned into films, witty noir films with elements of political, socially-critical realist cinema, but I also had a yearning to watch fantasy movies. There was a great deal of interesting stuff on Channel Four in those days too. In my writing, I think I have tried to fuse these very different worlds, so there’ll be elements of Ken Loach alongside David Lynch, things that may seem like incompatible influences on paper. 


For those who haven’t encountered No More Heroes as yet, can you tell us more about your theory about the relationship between Arnold Schwarzenegger and neoliberal economics?


I suppose I considered the seventies and the advent of neoliberalism to be a return to themes such as vitality and images of regrowth and rebirth. There’s a famous Reagan broadcast where he says “it’s morning in America”, so it’s about the idea that things were starting again. Around this time, you had a return to larger-than-life heroic characters in contrast to the downbeat, downcast and pessimistic cinematic figures of the sixties. 


I thought that Schwarzenegger and his career as an Austrian immigrant, working his way up and becoming a huge star in the eighties as well as his physical appearance seemed to tally into the American Dream of the 1950s after the post-Watergate pessimism of the 1970s. He was also a great advocate of Milton and Rose D. Friedman’s Free to Choose, which was particularly popular in the early stages of neoliberalism on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the iconic image of masculinity and the ultimate heroic American figure. So, there was a fairly uncontroversial dovetailing of Schwarzenegger as an image, a narrative and an advocate of neoliberalism. 


What are you currently listening to? How have your tastes developed over the years?


I suppose when I was a kid I had the usual Top of the Pops epiphanies that many people had so I think I developed an interest in music through the TV – we weren’t a musical household in any way. I think my big epiphany was Once In a Lifetime by Talking Heads. I was instantly moved by it and found it incredibly powerful and emotional in ways that I couldn’t understand at the time. It has a tragic, questioning grandeur to it that had a massive impact on me. I think outside of pop music, hymns and carols also had an effect on me, giving me a strong interest in language, which was very valuable as a working-class kid in a shipyard town. I was struck by the linguistic side of hymns. 


My sister’s friends used to bring a lot of Bowie albums round, and I also developed a huge interest in Springsteen. I think this goes back to my dual interest in sci-fi/fantasy and realism in movies. I didn’t see any contradiction between the likes of Bowie and Springsteen or know of any discourse about them being sort of opposing forces. In the long-run, it has been Springsteen that has been the most consistent musical pleasure. I think, although I have gone far and wide in terms of what I’ll listen to, much of what I like could be seen as rather mainstream and pedestrian in many ways. Where I’m mainly at is accessible, emotive rock and folk. 


I also really liked hip-hop when I was younger. The John Peel epiphany for me wasn’t the usual C86 stuff as much as when I heard Go Cut Creator Go by LL Cool J one night, then I Need a Beat later on. I think hip-hop is something that has been permanently exciting and interesting since its emergence – I think Kanye for instance has consistently produced incredibly interesting and exciting records. I guess he is the hip-hop equivalent to Bowie in that he is always experimenting with different styles and constantly searches through the underground even if he doesn’t do Bowie-style identity-swapping. Some of the tracks of The Life of Pablo are just superlatively great and unusual. I also like the latest Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q but I have found Kendrick Lamar to be a little too earnest and pedestrian. I also like a lot of Afropunk. I missed an Afropunk festival this year as it was vital left-wing Guardian journalist Dawn Foster’s birthday. I hope she reads this interview so she knows I sacrificed the festival to go to it! 


Can you tell us about your relationship with Repeater and the mass resignation from Zero?


I hope I don’t misrepresent anyone or anything with this answer, so apologies in advance if I do. I think the guy that owned the umbrella company in charge of Zero just became impossible to work with for certain people. He seemed to be an extremely trying and difficult person and the writers had an option to get out and took it. The staff who moved over to Repeater were all people I personally liked and had always found incredibly supportive. I get the feeling things are going very well and issues like distribution have been resolved. I think quality control has improved too – Zero were releasing a lot of books and I think there was a lot of overkill with very similar books being published. 



Carl circa 2004 on Deptford High Street


Which novelists and journalists have had the greatest influence on you? 

In terms of journalists, I’d definitely have to say David Stubbs and Simon Reynolds, because I read them in Melody Maker when I was a kid and I loved their purple prose. They were far away the best writers at the paper during that period and were perfect if you were a 14-year-old goth-in-waiting. Fiction-wise, I have certain favourite books but I’m not sure if I have any loyalty to any particular author. I have come to science-fiction very late, and I never liked a lot of post-punk literature like Ballard, Dick or any of the similar things you’re supposed to like if you’ve gone off to do philosophy. I quite liked the Beats like Burroughs, Henry Miller and a lot of US fiction. I just tried to read as widely as possible, though there is so much stuff out there I do feel like I still have significant gaps in my knowledge. 


What was life like in Barrow-in-Furness? 


It is hard to say as my own relationship with the place has changed quite a lot. When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to get out, and when I did return I felt a lot of burning anger and shame about my lowly proletariat background. Also, as a lanky teenage Goth growing up there I remember a lot of fear on Friday and Saturday nights. It could be a violent place at weekends, so I had an agonised relationship with it. However, I feel very neutral when I go back as an adult. I have travelled a lot now so I don’t feel as beholden to the place as being part of my identity. I feel a certain desire to defend its reputation because people that I love come from there but at the same time I don’t want to spend a great deal of time there. So there are elements of the classic love-hate relationship a lot of working-class people have towards their hometowns. Once you enter the wider world you start to experience strong conflicting feelings about where you belong. Do I think it has affected my work? I think that being working-class has definitely affected what I write.


My dad was extremely interested in politics and ideas, didn’t have a lot of opportunities for formal study but spent time teaching himself German, watching Newsnight, reading The Guardian, doing the crossword every day, being interested in grammar, venerated articulate and intelligent people and my mum was much the same, reading a lot so they were part of that working-class tradition of self-education, which is why I always react very badly to certain caricatures of working-class people.


How do you feel about the way the working-class are portrayed in the media? 


I was speaking to Rhian E. Jones who wrote Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender for Zero recently about the notion that the working-class are a specific type of thing. The reductiveness in how the working-class are portrayed is quite offensive. It seems like there is an over-emphasis on the deferential working-class, who tend to be royalists, love the British nation and have a proud sense of our imperial past. There’s no doubt that that element of the working-class does exist, but once you get to the 1990s and the end of history that David Stubbs’ talks about, you realise that there’s a flattening of the image of the working-class into something that’s England shirt-wearing, laddish, nationalist, royalist and will happily doff their caps towards the queen. 


The end of history argument is that the middle and upper classes are the ones that shape history, and in this shift away from the  proletariat as a potentially revolutionary force we end up with a ‘sensible’, deferential working-class becoming the only working-class voice. Brexit showed that there’s a huge emphasis on “white van man”, who represents a conservative set of viewpoints and aims, and he becomes the working-class as such. The non-white van man elements of the working-class end up being not only filtered out but seen as something that can’t exist or something that could never have existed, an illusion or a delusion, because history always belonged to the middle-class. 


Corbyn is sometimes criticized for turning his back on the working-class, by refusing to be anti-immigration and so on, but in fact he’s turning his back on this image of the working-class and this version of  history. It’s a scandal to the people in who are invested in the idea of White Van Man that influential figures have appeared and pointed out that there is a tradition of working-class protest, art, occupying political positions, self-education and internationalism. The working-class is split, complicated with vanguardist and conservative elements, yet certain people will only see an end-of-history stereotypical mass of essentially simple nationalists who have to be thrown a few bits of race-baiting candy every so often and then they’ll be satisfied. 


Thanks, Carl!

You can buy Resolution Way here.

Read recent Lichfield Interrogates interviews with BBC Tees' Bob Fischer here 
and former Labour MP and campaigner Chris Williamson here.

More interviews on their way.